Earthwatch Bird

While volunteer opportunities are often fulfilling and rewarding, they can sometimes lack in the adventure category.  Not so with the Earthwatch Institute.

The Earthwatch Institute is a non-profit organization created to bring together scientists, academics, students, and volunteers to further scientific research across the globe.   The Institute acts as a catalyst for research opportunities, helping to fund and organize research projects in the field.  Additionally, they also help staff the research teams on each project by connecting the teams in the field with scientific-minded volunteers from around the world.

So how does it work?

The financial sponsorship arm of Earthwatch receives dozens of applications from scientists for funding each year.  Each application details the research topic, geographic location, expected outcomes and impact, as well as an idea of logistics and staffing, and is rigorously reviewed by a team of scientific peers.  The various research topics span across several broad categories, including climate change, archaeology, ecosystems, and oceanography, however the specific research projects vary depending on funding, interest, and progress.

Many of the research projects focus around various types of ecosystems and their response or ability to respond to change.

Once the projects are declared viable, they begin to be fleshed out further, including the specific timing of the project (some types of research are seasonal, while volunteers are usually more plentiful in the summer months), overall duration, and logistic needs. As many of these research projects occur in remote, exotic locations, the Earthwatch team begins building connections with local businesses, local professionals, and the local communities to help support the teams in the field.  This logistical development typically occurs several months in advance of the start of the actual field work.  As the research project is finalized, the attention shifts to the volunteers, which is one of the most intriguing parts of the whole organization.

To assist with data collection and research in the field, these scientific teams rely on the help of what Earthwatch calls ‘citizen-scientists’, or more simply, people like you and me.  These volunteers fly out to join the teams for a period of seven to fourteen days (one to two weeks), where they live among the scientists and researchers in the field, learn about the science and intent of the research, and actually participate in the research itself.  The extent of participation varies with the research, however it’s usually pretty exciting as it is usually similar or the same as what the scientists are doing themselves!  In addition to the science, there’s also time allotted for the volunteers to explore the surrounding communities and environment.  These one or two week experiences are what Earthwatch fittingly calls “Expeditions”.

So what’s the catch?

A 3-year research project in the field can cost a significant amount of money, with some estimates well over half a million dollars.  While Earthwatch funds all or part of a multi-year research project themselves, the costs are passed down to the ‘citizen-scientists’, with the price of a 2016 Expedition averaging $2,900.  Additionally, volunteers are expected to make it to and from the rendezvous destination themselves.  While this may seem a bit daunting, both financially and logistically, these expeditions represent an opportunity to actually contribute to groundbreaking, hands-on research that could very well be the foundation for the next climate action plan, or conservation area, or wildlife refuge.  Moreover, with crowd-funding platforms, corporate programs and partnerships, or good old fashioned fundraising, these costs can be overcome.

The typical response to an increasing number of large-scale environmental and ecological issues is often ‘what can one person do?’ or ‘how much of an impact can one person have?’  Admittedly, climate change, deforestation, the decline of our coral reefs, loss of habitat, all these and many more reach across multiple disciplines, geographies, and industries, making the challenge of finding solutions intimidating.  With Earthwatch and their expeditions, however, regular people like us have a chance to not only directly fund research projects into these issues, but to take an active role in the research itself.  While the larger issues may remain abstract, these expeditions are a tangible opportunity to enable groundbreaking research while empowering thousands of like-minded volunteers and citizen-scientists.

Earthwatch’s website,, contains a wealth of information about the process, the science and research, the funding model, as well as the expeditions themselves.  Each expedition is detailed out complete with the cost, location, duration, a description and biography of the lead scientist(s), importance of the research, as well as a brief description of the potential activities and activity level performed by the citizen-scientist volunteers.  Exploring the website is the first step.  Exploring the world on an expedition is next.

Have you been on an Earthwatch expedition before?  Let us know!  Send us a description of your experience using the Contact Us page!